Julie Kays of The Counseling Center at Stella Maris: “Hold Hope”

Hold Hope — It’s hard to believe that things will ever get better when we are grieving and cannot imagine a time when we won’t grieve. The truth is, grief never does truly end — we carry it with us and often have to revisit it at different times in our lives. The only constant in life is change […]

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Hold Hope — It’s hard to believe that things will ever get better when we are grieving and cannot imagine a time when we won’t grieve. The truth is, grief never does truly end — we carry it with us and often have to revisit it at different times in our lives. The only constant in life is change and the feelings of grief change over time as well. Holding hope that change is possible, even when we don’t know how to get through to the other side, is critical to keep moving.


The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.

How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Kays.

Julie Kays, MS, LCPC, NCC is a licensed and Board-certified mental health counselor. She currently serves as the manager of the Counseling Center at Stella Maris in Timonium, MD where she journeys with those facing grief and loss issues throughout the lifespan. Ms. Kays has over 20 years of experience as a clinician, educator and community advocate.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a loving and supportive family. My initial experiences with loss were several moves during childhood where I had to leave homes and friends, each time having to grieve and create a new day-to-day life. The initial deaths I experienced in childhood were older family members whom I wasn’t emotionally connected with, but in my 20s and early adulthood, I started losing peers which was scary and humbling.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The quote I have on my desk is from Mark Nepo and says, “The deepest sufferings of heart and spirit cannot be solved, only witnessed and held.” It is a reminder that the pain we face in life cannot be fixed or changed, but needs to be lived through in order to ease in any way. It’s central to my work as a grief counselor and human being.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

My Compassion is really what led me into the counseling field. No matter how old I was or what job I was in, I have always been the one that people turned to for advice or guidance. I love learning about people and their stories; what they love and what breaks their hearts. I believe we are all human beings first and that being seen and understood are so central to our humanity.

I’m not sure of it is stubbornness or tenacity, but I have always tried to set aside my fears or doubts in order to pursue something that was important to me or that felt right. I have switched careers several times in my life when the jobs weren’t feeding me, and didn’t hesitate to reach out to someone to dialogue about an opportunity that interested me. Being able to set fear aside has opened doors for me, that wouldn’t have opened if I had let doubt set in.

Life is not easy and I have gone through some pretty dark times, but I always trust that change is possible and that central belief has helped me build resilience. We never know what we will have to face in life, but our willingness to be open to experience — to learn and change from it — and to share it with others for collective growth is the difference between getting stuck and moving. Reflecting light is only possible when you’ve walked in darkness and made it through.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

  • Give Yourself Permission to Not Be Okay

The first step in coping with pain is in acknowledging the truth of the emotions being experienced, not sugar coating them or pushing them aside. We experience grief whenever we have been forced into a new way of being and have to adjust to change. Traumatic grief can be described as “too much too soon” and as a result, it takes longer to heal from a traumatic loss. It’s okay to not have our act together or know where to go after facing a loss. We live in such a culture of happiness that views sadness and pain as negative emotions, yet they are central to being human and need to be felt as part of the normal grief process.

  • Be Gentle with Yourself

People put a lot of pressure on themselves to be able to cope and problem-solve, but when we’re in pain and grieving, we don’t have the resources to do so. It’s okay to not be okay. I often use the analogy of grieving being like rehab after surgery: when we’ve been released from the hospital after a major operation, we do not expect ourselves to have normal levels of energy or stamina, and we give our bodies time to heal so they can recover. Suffering an emotional trauma is no different: we need let our hearts rehabilitate so they can heal.

  • Express The Truth of What You Feel

Feeling painful emotions is difficult, but trying to contain them serves to intensify the very feelings we are trying to avoid and can lead to chronic health conditions. As humans, we tend to avoid painful feelings because they hurt, but allowing ourselves to feel and express those emotions are critical for healing. Expression can come in the form of talking to a trusted friend or counselor; journaling and writing about the truth of experience; finding creative ways of expressing emotions through music, art, gardening, cooking; or the physical release of emotions through walking, running, yard work or other sports.

  • Simplify and Prioritize

When we’re grieving, we do not have the psychic, emotional, cognitive or physical resources that we typically have and often have trouble functioning. As a result, it’s important to simplify tasks, only tackling the ones that must be done and putting off what can be deferred until later. One client I worked with decided to come up with a “Two Do” list every day, which were two tasks that needed to be accomplished in that day. Sometimes those tasks may be getting out of bed and feeding ourselves. With time, energy and focus will be restored to more reasonable levels. When we are grieving, it’s also important to prioritize relationships; to surround ourselves with people who will support us in the ways we need and take a break from those people in our life who demand more energy than we have to give.

  • Hold Hope

It’s hard to believe that things will ever get better when we are grieving and cannot imagine a time when we won’t grieve. The truth is, grief never does truly end — we carry it with us and often have to revisit it at different times in our lives. The only constant in life is change and the feelings of grief change over time as well. Holding hope that change is possible, even when we don’t know how to get through to the other side, is critical to keep moving.

Let’s discuss this in more specific terms. After the dust settles, what coping mechanisms would you suggest to deal with the pain of the loss or change?

Grief for who and what we have lost never really goes away, but is does get lighter to carry over time. Continuing to honor whatever it is we feel as part of our grief journey is important. Grief is dynamic — it ebbs and flows, so often it is a matter of learning how to ride the waves of it over time. Rituals can be an important way of connecting with our community, making our loss feel more valued and real. However you honor losses in your faith tradition, be sure to set aside time for a grief ritual. In the era of COVID-19 restrictions, people have had to find creative ways of coming together to acknowledge loss, but they have found new ways of doing so. Remembering to remember who or what has been lost is a critical component of grieving, as is learning to maintain a different relationship with the person, place, time or thing that has been lost.

How can one learn to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?

It’s human to want to avoid hard feelings and want to be “on the other side,” however with grief the only way is through. Grief cannot be avoided or set aside, it demands our attention and finds ways of getting our attention if we try to ignore it. Oftentimes we have to revisit the details of a loss or death in order for our psyche to make sense of it. When we understand that nothing can be done to change the outcome and choose to reconcile the event as part of our life, then we start healing and re-engaging with life again.

Aside from letting go, what can one do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

Grief takes time and has no clear timetable, so everyone’s experience is unique to them. Honoring the process and not trying to rush it; allowing ourselves to feel all that needs to be felt and not try to hide from experiencing feelings; finding outlets for those emotions; keeping a simplified routine while continuing an inner dialogue with self through the grief journey, eventually leads to healing. Be patient, let yourself feel without judgement and express whatever feelings are there.

How can one eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation?

We cannot change what has happened in the past, and certainly cannot get back what has already been lost, but there is a difference between viewing our losses as problems that can be fixed versus accepting them as truth. We remain stuck as long as we think we can change what has already happened in an attempt to find resolution. While we don’t have to like that our losses have occurred, or even find peace with them, we do have to move towards acknowledging that they have happened in order to carry them with us into the next phase of our lives.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

We have gotten so good at being human doers, we have forgotten how to be human beings. The fear and social isolation that has been perpetuated recently due to COVID-19, civil unrest and the political climate has only furthered the idea that others are to be feared. At our core, we are all human beings and if we all acknowledged that, honored that, took time to look each other in the eye, communicate, listen; let each other know we are seen and heard; the more collective healing could take place.

We are very blessed that some very prominent in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

I saw an interview with Melinda Gates and I was impressed with how her moral compass guides her decision-making. It was comforting to learn that her philanthropy is not driven by just the ability to give money, but by a discernment process that leads to finding the most impactful solutions for the collective good. It’s refreshing to hear from someone not guided by politics, but truly wanting to better people’s lives.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My counseling center can be found via our organization’s website at: Grief Counseling Center — Stella Maris — Timonium, MD

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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